Simon Harper reminisces about Talk Talk's timeless album
Pop music has always had an unquenchable obsession with the fresh and new - something marginally different that could be marketed as genuinely original, or the heirs to an irrefutably successful act.
This is more prominent now than ever before - we're told that Kaiser Chiefs are the new Blur, Coldplay are the new U2, Keane are the new Coldplay, as if everything can be traced backwards on one spindly timeline.
But it's hardly a new phenomenon. Even during the 1980s new acts were being touted as 'the new Duran Duran'. Among these collectives was Londonbased quartet Talk Talk, who didn't exactly assuage comparisons with Simon Le Bon and co when they hired Colin Thurston, who had worked with Duran Duran, to produce their debut outing.
The four-piece, with songwriter Mark Hollis at the fore, are perhaps most keenly remembered for their early singles, drawing on the insouciant glamour of the New Romantic movement.
The spangly synthpop of It's My Life - popularised recently thanks to a cover version perpetrated by the Gwen Stefani-fronted combo No Doubt - remarkably fell outside of the top 40 on its initial release, later becoming a hit in 1990, by which time the music industry and Talk Talk themselves had changed irrevocably.
By the time Talk Talk made 1988's Spirit of Eden, they had moved out of the shadow of their contemporaries - all hair spray, shoulder pads and dodgy synthesisers - to tread an altogether more singular path. Focusing on slow-building, intense yet airy chamber rock, Spirit of Eden is best described as a collection of compositions, sparse and spacious, than an album of conventional pop songs.
Adorned with glacial organ washes and almost neo-classical textures, it reveals elegant arrangements and eerily evocative timbres; the kind which have obviously influenced Doves, Elbow and Sigur Ros, while the visceral jazz-rock of opener The Rainbow must surely have been a touchstone for Jason Pierce when creating Spiritualized's heartbreak-andheroin opus, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space.
Even the concept of the traditional rock line-up is subverted on a record of such hushed beauty. Built upon layers of piano, organ, bass and guitar, it nevertheless takes in bassoon, oboe and clarinet, while I Believe in You features the Chelmsford Cathedral choir. Listening to its six tracks now, Spirit of Eden is still markedly alien-sounding; a feat which Radiohead have clearly tried to emulate, while coming nowhere near the spectral grace imagined by Mark Hollis.
While the Cocteau Twins and various other 4AD bands have been roundly praised for their dream-pop collages, Talk Talk's contribution to the British rock canon has long been ignored. Interestingly, the organic, autumnal atmosphere of Spirit of Eden can be spotted in the work of leading avant-rock musicians.
Certainly, their combination of jazz, classical, rock and the spacey echoes of dub, using silence almost as an instrument in its own right, lends itself to the vernacular of post-rock, and there can be little argument that Tortoise and their Chicago-based compatriots would hardly sound the same were it not for the staggering achievements of Hollis and Tim Friese-Green, presented on this near-faultless record.
Like Brian Eno's experiments with ambient pop melded with a rich sense of melody, Spirit of Eden is minimal, left-field rock at its finest; a peculiar record which rarely reaches more than a whisper, but its occasional crescendos serve as moments that accentuate the sense of quiet calm.
Spirit of Eden is an otherworldly masterpiece - icy yet inviting, unsettling but oddly compelling, not least on the closing track. The enchanting Wealth, resonating with all the gentle warmth of a lullaby, adds to the cohesive, consistent mood. As it drifts slowly out of earshot, it's almost impossible to tell when it has actually finished.
In confronting one of the clich>s of rock, namely the desire for artistic freedom, Talk Talk found themselves isolated from their peers, and dropped by their record label EMI for daring to produce something so uncommercial. The disparate themes and sounds which form Spirit of Eden were taken even further on its follow-up, 1991's impressive Laughing Stock, although it didn't quite match the heights scaled by its predecessor.
After the commercial failure of Laughing Stock, Talk Talk split, although some band members have continued to release music. Hollis' solitary solo album to date, belatedly released in 1998, has received huge critical acclaim despite incredibly modest sales. Bassist Paul Webb, recording as Rustin Man, has since collaborated with Portishead torch singer Beth Gibbons - rather appropriate, given that her group have recalled the exquisite melodies of Talk Talk's most accomplished production.
Listening to Spirit of Eden remains a limitless pleasure - it won't have you singing along in front of the mirror, but instead stands as a hugely enriching record, which has aged far better than the efforts of any of their peers.